What is a primary source?
A primary source is any record created during the time you are researching - an eyewitness account. Primary sources can take many forms, such as newspapers, letters, journals, tax lists, court documents, church records, or a census. Even published books can be considered primary sources if they were printed during the time of your study.
A secondary source is a record created later by someone who did not experience the time period or events that you are studying. Most histories are secondary sources.
For example, if George Washington wrote an account of the American Revolution it would be a primary source because he experienced it. If he wrote an account of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth it would be a secondary source because it occurred long before Washington's life. Both accounts would have been written more than two hundred years ago, but only the one that reflected Washington's own time would be a primary source.
How do I use primary sources?
Like eyewitness accounts of modern events, each primary source will only give one perspective and may be incomplete or inaccurate. As you conduct research, consider the following:
- Who wrote the document and why?
- How would these motives shape the information in the report?
- What was the intended audience for this document?
- Was it meant to be published or kept private?
- Was it official or personal?
- How does the writer know what (s)he has reported?
- What conventions/norms exist that shape the information? (church records preserve different information than tax lists or a census)
- What other sources might provide additional information?
What about published transcriptions and translations - are they primary documents?
Published versions of primary sources are useful and are sometimes the only way researchers can access necessary information. But beware. They are not always reliable. Errors can occur in even the most careful transcriptions. Sometimes transcribers skip information they consider unnecessary. Sometimes they make "corrections" that actually introduce errors. And even the best translations lose something in the process. In short, use them with caution and recognize that quality will vary. Try to find the most reliable versions of documents that you can.